The science confirmed it. The climate is changing. The change is because of extra carbon in the atmosphere. The extra carbon is because we put it there. And now we don’t like it.
We don’t like sea level rise. We don’t like arctic ice sheets and glaciers melting. We don’t like more and worse hurricanes, tornadoes, and super-storms. We don’t like intense heat waves. We don’t like longer and more intense bushfire seasons.
We don’t like our potential future!
What to do? The answer seems to suggest a reduction in carbon emissions. Next question: how does this waste product of carbon get produced? Simple: from the burning of fossil-fuels. Why do we burn them? To provide us with energy.
That’s it then. Swap to alternative energy sources. But not a simple swap. The new energy sources must be sustainable, they must not add further carbon waste. And, they must be renewable (re-new-able.)
Following on down that linear cause-effect thinking process we ask: what is renewable? Wind and sunshine. We’ve solved it. We invent technology that will harness the energy in solar and wind.
And that has become the main message. I may be stating it somewhat bluntly, but the essential message of hope is that if we turn away from fossil-fuels and invest in renewables we can solve the climate chaos crisis. It is a three-pronged solution: solar, wind, battery storage.
Is it really a Solution?
Let’s ask a few more questions. Let’s do some further thinking on renewables.
What will be the demand for metals needed for Solar Photovoltaics between now and 2050, if we want global warming to remain below 2 degrees Celsius? On average, production will need to rise by at least 300%. Silver, for example, has a current annual production level of about 25,000 tonnes. It will need to rise to over 700,000 tonnes.1
We know that the wind doesn’t always blow and that the sun does not always shine. Batteries are the answer to having electricity available for when solar and wind does not provide us with direct energy. Lithium is a key mineral in battery production. In 2019 lithium mines produced 77,000 tonnes. To have sufficient storage capacity over the next thirty years production will need to expand to 30 million to 50 million tonnes per year. That’s 400 times the present production rate!
What’s more, extracting one tonne of lithium from a mine requires 1,250 tonnes of earth to be dug up. That translates to 50 billion tonnes of earth being dug up annually!2 And that’s just lithium.
Another suggested solution is to replace our petrol and diesel powered vehicles with Electric Vehicles (EVs.) Sounds reasonable doesn’t it – until we start asking a few questions. Questions like: how much raw material needs to be mined, moved, and processed in order to make one EV battery? One EV battery weighs approximately 450 kg. However, the answer to the question is 225,000 kg, i.e. 225 tonnes. That is five hundred times the weight of the battery!
Sounds like a lot of earth needs to be dug up, and lots of minerals mined, in order to reach our “renewable” goals. Perhaps it can be done. Perhaps the mining industry has sufficient earth moving machinery, or will procure it.
Well, yes, but!! But, what are we doing? Tearing into Mother Earth. Polluting water supplies. Disrupting indigenous communities. The damage to environments and people in South America (where minerals such as lithium and nickel are mined) and the Congo (which produces 70% of the world’s cobalt) is already well known.
A few months ago Rio Tinto received world-wide condemnation for blowing up a 46,000 year old site of cultural significance to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people in Western Australia. Rio Tinto’s CEO and two other senior executives resigned as a result. This was not the first instance of such culturally significant desecration.
Can we really expect that future miners will not undertake similar destruction simply because the minerals they are exploiting are to be used in renewables?
I can hear the responses already. The technology will become more efficient. Perhaps. If it does though, it will be only small gains in efficiency. The big efficiency gains have already been made.
There is a limit (known as the Schockley-Queisser Limit) to converting photons to electrons in photovoltaic cells. It is 34%. Currently photovoltaic technology is 26% or slightly more. Most of the potential efficiency is already in the technology.3
Similarly for wind (where it is known as the Betz Limit) the limit of kinetic energy able to be utilised by a turbine is about 60%. Modern wind turbines exceed 45%.3
Besides, increasing efficiency does not reduce growth in the technology. Far from it. Mostly it increases growth. William Jevons (an English economist) noticed this paradox almost one hundred and sixty years ago. Jevons realised that technological improvements leading to increased efficiency in coal use, led – contrary to expectation – to greater coal consumption. The effect has been known as the Jevons Paradox ever since.
What to do then?
Some have pointed to these problems with renewables as evidence that we cannot step aside from fossil-fuels.
This author is not advocating that conclusion.
However, the above does imply (strongly I would suggest) that we need a renewed approach to how we think about renewables. That means we need to re-think the solutions we are offering if we intend to remain below a 2 degree rise in global temperature.
The renewable energy solution is one of supply. It looks to an alternative way to supply the electricity demanded by human beings.
What if we do a rethink, and start asking questions about demand? That means a renewed approach to our consumption levels.
Simply put – we are consuming too much. We are consuming more than Mother Earth can regenerate.
We must stop thinking about renewables and start thinking about de-growth. We must go into de-tox; recover from our addiction to consumption for consumptions sake.
1. These and the following data are from The Growing Role of Minerals and Metals for a Low Carbon Future, World Bank, 2017.
2. Presently (as of 2020) 61.1 billion tonnes of metal ore, fossil fuels, and non-metallic minerals are extracted from the Earth annually. www.theworldcounts.com (accessed 25 Nov 2020)
3. Mark P Mills (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), The ‘New Energy Economy’: An Exercise in Magical Thinking, March 2019.